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Gender Gaps in Employment Come From Masculine Workplaces

To close gender pay gaps, don’t blame women. Blame the workplace environment.

Key points

  • Gender employment gaps—that men make more money and have higher-status careers than women—are real.
  • Masculine defaults in the workplace play a major contributing role.
  • Training women to act more like typical men is not the solution.
  • Valuing and adopting more feminine approaches is a better solution.

A recent Wall Street Journal piece declared the gender pay gap—the fact that women in general get paid less than men—as a “myth that won’t go away” because women freely choose jobs that result in less pay. In my post last month, I challenged this idea based on two concepts out of psychology: The first was that women face enormous social pressures compared to men to be the caretakers and homemakers in the family, such that their employment “choices” aren’t really choices at all. Here, I cover the second concept: Workplaces hugely reward masculine approaches to work.

Economists who make the claim that gender employment gaps are due to women’s free choices assume that workplace environments are equally appealing to men and women. But this assumption neglects the concept of masculine defaults, to me, one of the most useful ideas in the recent literature on the psychology of gender. Masculine defaults in the workplace are systems, policies, and approaches to work that are based on traditional masculine norms. In such contexts, masculine qualities such as competitiveness, independence, assertiveness, and risk-taking are rewarded more than feminine qualities such as cooperation, teamwork, modesty, and patience. For example, employees who self-promote and negotiate for raises or positions are more likely to advance and achieve better outcomes in the workplace. Such masculine defaults characterize workplaces everywhere.

There is nothing inherently wrong with masculine approaches to getting things done (that is until they become toxic). The problem is that feminine qualities are not nearly valued as much in the workplace. Borrowing from research reviewed by social psychologists Sapna Cheryan and Hazel Markus, feminine defaults could involve aspects of the workplace that reward being nurturing, agreeable, collaborative, accommodating, holistic, warm, restrained, interdependent, relational, other-promotional, and connected. These approaches to the workplace are rarely rewarded in the same way as masculine defaults that encourage being self-reliant, assertive, competitive, confident, decisive, independent, self-promotional, and bold. There is no reason, however, for masculinity to be rewarded more than femininity. I have yet to see evidence that masculine defaults make for a happier, more profitable workplace than one that values and rewards both masculine and feminine approaches.

Women may opt out of working in masculine-default workplaces entirely, or they may not self-promote in the same way as men and thus not receive the same raises and promotions, all of which contribute to the gender pay gap. The superficial solution, then, has been to train women to be more assertive and self-promoting as a means to gain workplace equality with men. But this leads to two problems. First, it trains women to just act like a typical man, which seems unnecessary and only continues to devalue femininity. Second, people don’t respond well to women who act like men anyway. Women who act dominant are disliked and face backlash when attempting to succeed in workplaces with masculine defaults.

The better solutions are to (a) increase the value of positions associated with feminine qualities, such as care (teachers, nurses, etc.), and (b) encourage workplaces associated with masculine qualities (tech companies, law firms, etc.) also to value and reward feminine approaches to work or foster environments that are equally appealing to women and men.

For example, one study showed that when computer science classrooms are decorated with masculine-typed objects, such as Star Wars/Star Trek paraphernalia and tech magazines, women were much less interested in signing up for the class than when the classroom was decorated with more neutral objects such as general magazines and plants. A simple change in the environment from masculine to neutral can encourage participation by women.

The point, both in this post and my previous one, is that the blame for gender gaps in pay and employment should not be directed at women’s choices to take on lower-status and lower-paying jobs. Instead, we should look critically at the workplace structures and expectations that operate to devalue women and feminine approaches to success in the first place.

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